Talking With Your Doctor About a Shoulder Fracture


Catherine Spader, RN

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Your shoulder is the joint where three bones meet—the humerus (upper arm bone), the scapula (shoulder blade), and the clavicle (collarbone). A shoulder fracture is a partial or total break in one or more of these bones. 

The most common fractures occur in the clavicle and the neck of the humerus. This is the area just below the ball of the humerus, which fits into the “socket” of the shoulder joint. 

Symptoms and disability vary depending on the type and severity of the fracture. Symptoms can include: 

  • Bruising
  • Deformity of the arm, shoulder or collarbone
  • Difficulty moving the shoulder and arm
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Swelling

Your doctor will tailor your treatment plan to your specific fracture and your recovery goals. Individualized care starts with a conversation. Here are topics to bring up with your doctor that will help him or her decide the best course of treatment—for you.

Describe Your Injury and Symptoms 

Your doctor will want to know how you fractured your shoulder. For example, did it occur while playing sports? Did you fall on the shoulder? Was there a hard blow to the shoulder? Your doctor will also want to know about any history of shoulder or bone problems, including osteoporosis. This information can tell your doctor a lot about the type of shoulder fracture you have and how well it will heal. 

Your doctor will want to know about your symptoms. Try to describe them in detail. If you’re having pain, describe how severe it is. Tell your doctor how hard it is to move your shoulder and arm on the affected side. You should also pay attention to any numbness or pins-and-needles feelings in your arm or hand.

After examining your shoulder, your doctor will likely order imaging tests. An X-ray is the most common test, but your doctor may also order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). MRIs can find injuries that are known to occur with a shoulder fracture, such as soft tissue damage, that are not visible with routine x-rays. 

Explore Your Treatment Options

Fortunately, many shoulder fractures will heal without surgery. Depending on the location and severity of the fracture, general treatment may include:

  • Icing the fracture
  • Resting the shoulder and arm
  • Taking over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
  • Wearing a sling or splint

Surgery may be necessary if a bone is dislocated out of place. You may need plates, screws or pins to stabilize the bone. Humerus fractures often occur in older people with osteoporosis, which causes weak bones. In this case, treatment may include shoulder replacement surgery.
Ask your doctor why he or she thinks a certain treatment is right for you, and what other options are available. Ask how long it may take for symptoms to subside and when you can return to activities. Your doctor may recommend another set of X-rays as you heal. 

Working with your doctor on your care plan can help you feel more in control of your condition and anticipate a return to health.  

Talk About What to Expect After Recovery

Some shoulder fractures require rehabilitation to get you back to your activities. Others simply need time and rest. Ask your doctor or physical therapist what you can expect after recovery. Discuss all your activities, especially sports and physical work, and ask when and how you can return to them safely.

Many people can regain normal or near-normal use of the shoulder after a fracture. This may be more difficult if you had a serious fracture involving more than one bone or you have a history of osteoporosis. Chronic conditions, such as arthritis, can sometimes develop after a shoulder fracture. Knowing what to expect may help you set realistic long-term expectations.